On Silence: Off Paper Editor Tessa Hulls returns from hiding in Alaska

On Silence

“I’ve heard that the northern lights make a noise, but I imagine you have to be attuned to silence to hear it.” –Anik See, Saudade

Three years ago, I lived in Antarctica and I learned how to see white. In my last month there, I walked the same three-mile loop each day in an act of self-created pilgrimage. Every time I walked, I stopped for as long as I could stand the cold, and I shuffled the heavily-layered bulk of my body against the enfolding crevices of crenellated, wind-sculpted rocks so I could sit and stare at the incoherent expansiveness of a frozen ocean receding seamlessly into the sky.

Technically, white is the combination of all other colors. As a painter, I understood this intellectually: in Antarctica, I learned to see it. For the first time in my life, I experienced whiteness in true isolation and saw its capacity to unhinge any understanding of boundary or scale. Your eyes pan across the horizon as you search for something concrete to hold your gaze, and your mind experiences a fluxing vertigo as you attempt to find places to pin irrelevant words like foreground and background. You begin to let go of what you think you should see, and instead interpret the landscape as it is.

The corners of your vision distort. Small bursts, insinuations of shadow, splash themselves against the flatness and disappear before you can name them. And slowly, the subtleties of white unfold, and what you initially perceived as a homogenous plane blossoms into a nuanced richness that bites at your senses with an almost-unbearable force. You see magenta-white.  Chartreuse-white. Quinacradone-white. White that resonates through your bones, whispers to you in an impossible language. Birdsong-white. Sharing-secrets-white. Fingertips-of-a-lover-tracing-across-your-hipbones-white. The white breaks you open. It changes you.

I believe there is a point at which the self collapses, a point at which we have no choice but to tremble into grace. But I also believe that most of us will never give ourselves the space to find this state. We will never give ourselves the silence that it requires.

I have been back in Seattle for just over a month, and being home is bittersweet. Before I left to spend a season living in Denali National Park, I wrote an essay called How to Disappear. In it, I talked about how I had accidentally transformed— how I had left behind my sense of self as I biked through the mountains of the Central Alaskan Range, and was happy for that loss. I went back to Alaska unsure of how I fit within my old life, and I gave myself a truly decadent gift: I took a sabbatical from being an artist. I didn’t create a damn thing. Instead, I listened. And in much the same way that I once learned to see white, I learned to hear silence.

My best friend’s dad had tinnitus, a medical condition in which you hear a constant ringing tone in your ears. It drove him mad, and he eventually committed suicide. At the end of his life, he spent countless hours in the shower; the sound of the falling water was the closest thing he could find to silence. It created a white noise that approximated neutrality, that could bring him somewhere close to peace. I have been thinking about him of late, about him wreathing his head in a crown of water to create a safe refuge from a noise that only he could hear.

His experience was physical: he heard an actual sound that he could not break free of. But I have been thinking about that constant ringing as metaphor, and I wonder if in some way, we are all tormented by one thing that only we can hear. For the first two years of its existence, The Project Room asked the question: Why Do We Make Things? My answer to this question constantly evolves, but I am becoming increasingly more convinced that this idea of an idiosyncratic noise lies somewhere at the heart of it.

In his book Skinny Legs and All, the author Tom Robbins offers up one of my favorite answers to the question of why we are compelled to make:

“If there’s a thing, a scene, maybe, an image that you want to see real bad, that you need to see but it doesn’t exist in the world around you, at least not in the form that you envision, then you create it so that you can look at it and have it around, or show it to other people who wouldn’t have imagined it because they perceive reality in a more narrow, predictable way. And that’s it. That’s all an artist does.”

Robbins makes this point for artists, but we all have that thing we want to see, that thing that doesn’t exist: this is the private noise that haunts each and every one of us. But our society teaches us that the answer to the discomfort of this impossible longing is to drown it out, to mask it behind so many other sounds and contrived appetites that our one intimate noise becomes lost amongst the tumult. And this works, but at what cost? We overload our senses with a constant influx of distraction and outrage and manufactured need, inflicting ourselves with a ceaseless series of low-grade injuries to dull the throbbing of that first unattainable desire. We pile more and more on top of it, crippling ourselves with the ever-loudening weight of our dampening solutions. And somewhere along the way, we forget that we need silence. And then we forget how to hear it.

The choice to be an artist is the choice to value silence. It is the choice to stand in opposition to the loudness of contemporary culture and instead focus on making room to hear your own subtly aching tone. My friend’s father could only stand in the shower, always aware that his relief was masked and fleeting; but I have hope that it does not need to be this way.

Every noise has its antipode, a partnered resonance that perfectly cancels it out. The shower was a partial solution, but relief is not something you can passively find. It is something that you must learn how to construct. The process is like running your moistened finger along the rim of a wine glass. You feel the lip slide beneath your touch, and you subtly adjust your speed and pressure until you find the right vibrational frequency. And then everything begins to sing.

I believe that the act of making can perform a genuine miracle: if we are willing to embrace our noise, to make within ourselves a sheltered stillness in which we can explore it with honesty and vulnerability, then we have within us the capacity to create the exact paired tone that can set us free.  We can build silence. We can build our own way out.

Why do we make things? We make things because we are fumbling as best we can towards our own silence.

The Project Room is currently exploring the topic of Transformation, and it is a theme that I am finding deeply pertinent as I explore what it means to come home. My seasons of silence have transformed me; they have made me a creature of softer, quieter ambitions. They have given me a desire for a much smaller life.

 About four years ago, I transformed in a starkly simple way: I accepted that I was a migratory creature. Perhaps this sounds like a small shift, but it takes so little to alter the trajectory of a life. The understanding that home is a moving target, that it wanders both geographically and emotionally throughout the year, explained the softly burning restlessness that has always tugged at every thread of me. It let me hear the noise that plagues me and gave me some awareness of its structures and its boundaries. And since then, I have been walking through it, mapping its topography and crafting my way out.

My personal tone is about seasonal balance, and I split my year transitioning between a self that needs the cacophonous richness of the city, and a self that needs the literal silence of geographic isolation.

 Seasons of solitude leave lingering effects, and at times I wonder if they have given me a form of deeply tactile synesthesia. My senses only exist in concert, and I cannot tell you what something looks like unless I also tell you what it smells like. What it feels like when you take it in your palms and turn it, how it lightly catches against the ridged calluses of your skin. The sound it makes when you drop it into a porcelain bowl; the way its boundaries yield when you explore it with your teeth. My mind has a need to connect all points. I cannot tell you anything without also telling you everything, and I exhaust myself with the demands of this literally sensual excess.

 When I am in the city, I run at a flat-out sprint. I surrender to the strength of the current and join the howling chorus of my creative peers as we ravenously make and question and build. And I need this. I need to be overwhelmed by the sheer impossible mass of so many hungry, searching lives. But its complexity drowns me even as it inspires me, and I begin to ache for silence.

I thirst for a landscape with less moving parts, with sparse, empty horizons that might hold my overly-active mind and allow it to slow, to rest. There was a time in my life when I fought this longing, when I tried to bury its voice and convince myself to stay. But I lost that battle, and I have learned to trust myself when it is time to leave. The battle now is about finding stillness within a life of constant transformation, of learning how these two worlds—and two selves—connect.

I have been away from Seattle for seven months, and it feels right to be easing back in. But my hope is that these seasons do not need to be so binary, that I can bring some of the gifts of my solitude with me as I transform back into my city-self. I believe that there must be an eye of the storm, a way to live in rich slowness within the city. A way to focus on just one thing. On white. On silence. On peace.

“And I believe we are born to both fate and chance,

that we’re meant to chase ourselves

through the labyrinths of desire,

get lost, slaughtered, and discover

extravagant pleasures lusciously prolonged.

And I believe that you can only attain such detachment

through total, unstinting attachment to this world,

here and now, all, every bit,

by getting your face in it

while throwing your self away.

And I believe we will suffer and suffer and suffer,

and that one joy torches a thousand sorrows,

that today is tomorrow,

that faith is a reflex of gratitude,

and that faith demands we go down singing

rather than dwindle into constant snivel

because existence won’t give us what we want.


I believe in every voice in the choir,

every breath-born note and syllable.

And I believe most of all

my belief is not required.”

        —Jim Dodge, excerpted from "Holy Shit"